Facets of your life will change. Relationships that once seemed part of everyday life will change or fade.
Many parents feel profound isolation and let down by friends, families and colleagues. Your loss is so big, so great that it is nearly impossible for most people to be fully supportive or understand how to help. Sometimes, others purposely avoid you out of concern that “it” could happen to them and that you or death could be “contagious.”
Despite the many challenges you will face, there will be surprising and reassuring revelations among your family, friends and colleagues. Some will step forward and become sound supporters during such a turbulent time. There will be relationships that continue to support your resolve by offering love and compassion. Some may be expected, but often our most ardent supporters surprise us.
Perhaps the most remarkable change in your life will be your relationship with yourself. Without doubt, parents blame themselves for “not knowing” or “making a bad decision” or not following their intuition. It does not matter how old your child was or how they died, nearly all parents report that they are ultimately to blame and, at the end of the day, it was their job to protect their child. They feel they failed.
Living with this self blame and guilt may, or may not, evolve over time. Finding ways to care for yourself over the months and years to come will be absolutely one of the most important things you must do for your own well-being and health. You must give yourself permission not to be everything to everyone, permission to miss events that are too painful to attend, even permission to restructure your relationships with others who cannot or will not understand how life-altering your loss is. Granting yourself compassion and love will take time, but knowing what you are capable of and what helps will be a source of light and hope for the years to come.
Beyond the relationships with your other children, maintaining a marriage while working through grief can present unique challenges for both parents. Mothers and fathers may grieve differently, making family continuity and unity a struggle.
You may be told that your marriage will end and that science supports this notion. Actually, many bereaved parents stay together because there is only one other person in the whole world who knew your child. For many, the loss solidifies a foundation, rather than shatters it.
If you do divorce that’s okay too. Parents and families cope in all ways and styles.
With your other children
Your surviving children may be a life raft to love, laughter and hope in the future. Finding ways to invest in your surviving children or grandchildren often brings us closer to the child we have lost.
For some parents, however, it is difficult to engage with other surviving children as it compounds their pain. While being patient and kind to yourself, know that your other children have lost their brother and sister. Sometimes time can help mend relationships, but know that can take weeks, months or years.
With friends and visitors
Many people may insist on helping. Knowing what to tell them may be difficult because the only thing that will make you feel better is having your child back. Since this is a chaotic time, set specific days and times for visitors to come by. If you are not up to seeing visitors, you can leave a note on the door saying “maybe next week.” Knowing when to safeguard yourself and when to engage with others will evolve over time. Many people will want to help, but often make insensitive comments unintentionally. All parents and families experience this. It is okay to be selective with your connections to people. Safeguarding yourself from further pain can help you cope.
Over time, support will dwindle. People will stop checking in on you, stop bringing food or asking how you are doing. Many will expect you to be “over it” in a matter of months or a few years. Some may even express concern that you are not “healing” quickly enough. Know that it is normal to mourn deeply for years. You have lost one of the most important individuals in your life. Some parents may keep a child’s room for more than ten years. It is all okay. It is normal.
Relationships with your professional colleagues will be difficult initially, if not indefinitely for some. You may decide to skip lunches that would have been commonplace before or decline other light-hearted work events. Watching your co-workers move through the world, as if nothing happened, will be painful. Some colleagues will want to help. Some will want to talk and hear more, but you may not want to rehash the details of your recent life and pain. And, others will say nothing at all. Your relationships with colleagues will be different, and it will take time to establish a new rhythm.
With your faith leaders
Relationships with faith leaders may be one of the most profound and important touch points for you in the years immediately following a death. Some families find that their faith evolves toward spirituality and away from strict religious doctrine. Meaning that some parents may find hope in butterflies, rainbows or sunrises, while others find grace in The Bible, for example.
Some families close the door on religion and faith as no god or gods could ever cause such pain. Yet, some families become more devout and believe only god knows the larger plan. Regardless of your beliefs, bereaved families often struggle with matters of faith and spirituality. Reckoning how and why such a tragedy happened is a central theme among many. The answers you find or seek may evolve or grow over time.
Rebuilding or sustaining relationships often requires considerable time and energy in the months and years to follow. Some relationships may quickly and easily fall into place, but many are a struggle. While many people intend to be supportive or say thoughtful, loving things, until you have been in our sneakers, it is difficult for people to understand how to be helpful and not hurtful.
Your loss will impact all of your relationships, now and in the future. Some may become more meaningful and supportive than what you have experienced in the past, while others may evolve and be more distant. Being patient with yourself is important. You have experienced one of the most difficult and painful experiences a person can have.